An Apology to the Woman at the Well

woman-at-the-well.jpg In an earlier post I talked about how Jesus displayed his propensity for mercy and inclusion when he met the woman at the well in John 4:1-42.

At that time I was basing my remarks upon what is the current wisdom among many progressive Christians, that the Jewish culture of the time was racist, sexist and obsessed with legalistic purity and social class. In contrast Jesus, and by association, Christians, stand out as models of exemplary behavior. Of course, Jesus being Jesus, would be the best example of how we should treat others, but we don’t need to demonize the Jews in order to do so.

As you may know, I am reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book, “The Misunderstood Jew” and I keep coming across material that causes me to take stock of my world view. At one point she illustrates the obvious inconstancies with the popular Christian take on this story:

1. Although we think of the Samaritan woman as being marginalized due to her ethnicity, we need to remember that here Jesus is in Samaria and he would have been the marginalized minority. He is the daring one, by initiating a conversation with a Samaritan. The feud between the Jews and the Samaritans was a two way street.

2. We assume that his disciples are amazed because he is talking with an unclean woman but it may be just as likely that it is because he is talking with a Samaritan as well as a woman. Jesus had other exchanges with women in the Gospels and it did not often astound people, casting doubt on the presumption that Jewish men did not address women in conversation. That being said, undoubtedly first century Palestine was patriarchal and Jesus himself had no women in his inner circle. Christianity can not seriously claim to be a uniquely ‘feminist’ tradition.

3. It is suggested that this woman was of ill repute, as she was drawing water alone, at midday. She also admits to having had several husbands and is living with a man out of wedlock. But this, according to Levine, does not make her ritually unclean, as the Law does not specifically address these issues. If she actually had been a shamed and shunned women it would have been unlikely that the villagers would have listened to her account in the first place, much less believe her.

I think it is important to consider what Levine and other Jewish scholars are saying here. The common Christian take on scriptures (which I am guilty of) – that in which Jesus stands out vividly against a backdrop of a despicable people and a despicable system, is a terrible misrepresentation of an entire nation, their history, faith and culture. Certainly it is not necessary for us to beleive this in order to see the divinity of Christ nor appreciate his teachings. The gulf that has existed over the centuries between us and our Jewish brothers and sisters is the result of misunderstanding each other’s beliefs. In our case this misunderstanding has resulted in two thousand years of crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and the Holocaust.

Though she is not Jewish, I am sorry for having insulted this woman, and in the process our Jewish friends.


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  1. #1 by inWorship on April 3, 2008 - 11:25 am

    I am agreeing with the discussion here…good stuff.

    I did want to expand on something though.

    “I think we value certain people more than others in the Church”

    I would add that this happens everywhere and is not exclusive to the church. In fact I would go on to say that, seeing this in the church, is evidence that the church has allowed the world to affect it, instead of the church affecting the world.

  2. #2 by ric booth on April 3, 2008 - 12:06 pm

    Interesting take on this story Christian. I’ll have to add Levine’s book to my list … I wonder if the “prostitute” rendition was the result of centuries of hype or did past scholars believe, based on whatever (assumptions or evidence), that this was the most likely? Is Levine surfacing past interpretations that are just not widely shared or has she discovered something new?

    Either way, I welcome the pot being stirred and the discussion it creates. It forces us to ask the questions I posed above…

  3. #3 by Darla on April 4, 2008 - 7:43 am

    I am the modern day women at the well. From my place in all this…women make bad choices out of need or searching for something more, something that fills them. Jesus is that something. With my old reputation (before Jesus) no one would have believed me either…but when HE gave me himself and filled me with his “living water”, I no longer had the desire to search for anything but Him. Many saw my change and asked and believed…My husband say the change immediately…he now is a worship leader/entertainer for the King. I would add one more question to this post…”What made her talk to him, why didn’t she just blow him off and move on?” my own answer is that she saw a compassion in his eyes that only HE has, and those who love him have the same.

    Just my two cents…good post! ( apology accepted! 😆 )

  4. #4 by Christian on April 4, 2008 - 11:31 pm

    Thanks Darla. You aren’t the first lady I’ve met who feels much the same way you do over this particular story. You ask a good question; we can say where Jesus was coming from. But as a Samaritan she would have held a Jew in contempt. Yet she responded to him.

  5. #5 by lovewillbringustogether on April 5, 2008 - 3:01 am

    i DID say at the time… i thought you were maligning her a tad ‘prematurely’ 😉

    love <B

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